Same tired old anti-Russia propaganda
The ferocious row over the Kremlin's notorious anti-gay law
in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics has sparked a bout of Russia-bashing that is not only often unfair, but also counter-productive. Russia's vaguely worded law
, approved by Vladimir Putin last summer, bans the promotion of homosexuality to minors
. It is an unnecessary, clumsy piece of legislation, in many respects similar to the Thatcher-era Section 28
, and is designed solely to boost support for Putin in Russia's conservative heartland. It has also triggered a spike in homophobic violence, the subject of worldwide protests today in support of Russia's LGBT community
, and a Dispatches documentary on Channel 4
But while western opponents of the Kremlin's law may have noble intentions, their criticism has far too often been both hysterical and hypocritical. Condemnation has also at times resembled hate speech, as in Hugh Laurie's recent suggestion that Russians have nothing whatsoever of value to offer the world. Laurie's outburst was mild, however, compared to statements by Stephen Fry and Jay Leno, who have both likened the Kremlin's law to Nazi persecution of Jews
I have no wish to defend Putin or the hateful anti-gay comments
being made by Russian politicians and celebrities. Life in Russia for LGBT people is often deeply unpleasant, and they deserve the support of the international community. But a sense of perspective is in order, especially if critics want to claim the moral high ground. Otherwise they play straight into the hands of the Kremlin-run media, whose raison d'etre
is increasingly founded on its gleeful willingness to highlight western inconsistencies. The new legislation is certainly not, as US-based gay rights activists have claimed, "one of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the planet"
Amid the furore, it's easy to overlook some simple facts. Homosexuality in Russia - unlike more than 40 countries in the Commonwealth and 70 worldwide - is not illegal
. To date, over six months since the law came into force, fewer than a dozen people have been fined for "gay propaganda". Not a single person has been jailed. Russian police do not have powers to detain people they suspect of simply being gay or lesbian, as a New York Times leader erroneously stated last year
. If this were so, then how do we explain the fact that gay clubs are able to advertise and operate in Moscow and other big cities?
And, no, gay people are not, as Fry claims, being beaten to death "while police stand idly by". If this were the case, would police in Volgograd have arrested and charged three men with murder last year
over what investigators called a homophobic hate crime? Would the men who carried out a brutal homophobic killing in the east of Russia this month have been sent to penal colonies
? Would the thug who attacked a gay rights activist for unfurling a rainbow flag during an Olympic torch relay in central Russia have been sentenced to corrective labour?
The authorities should and must be far more vigilant in punishing perpetrators of hate crimes, but these are hardly the hallmarks of a campaign of state-sponsored terror.
If Putin is indeed waging war
on Russia's LGBT community, then why has he not followed the example of Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, which has just introduced a new law that stipulates jail sentences of up to 14 years for gay people
? Or India, the world's largest democracy, where the supreme court recently reinstated a colonial-era ban on gay sex
? If he wants to get really harsh, of course, Putin could look to Saudi Arabia, whose habit of executing homosexuals
has done little to break up what Barack Obama has called the "long history of friendship"
and Riyadh. This, of course, is the same Obama who has "no patience"
for Russia's gay propaganda law.
Comparisons with the antisemitic laws of the Nazis are both insulting and inappropriate. How insulting? Well, Nikolai Alexeyev, a prominent LGBT activist who earlier this year became the first person to be fined £70 under the federal gay propaganda law, has hit out at western reporting of the issue as biased and hypocritical.
Any attempt to highlight such contradictions is, of course, routinely dismissed as "whataboutism"
. But this is an increasingly unsatisfactory comeback. The Kremlin clearly has no intention of ignoring such double standards. Just look at the pleasure Putin took in pointing out that more than 10 US states still have sodomy laws on the books
Had he been aware of it, he would also undoubtedly have seized upon a 2013 report by Stonewall
, which revealed that one in six lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the UK had been the victim of a homophobic hate crime or incident in the previous three years. "Gay people still suffer abuse in all areas of their life - from strangers, neighbours, workmates and even family," the report read
. "Many of those who engage with the criminal justice system come away dissatisfied as so many crimes and incidents are reported but not followed up."
No country likes being lectured to, especially when that criticism is so often seen as disproportionate and ill-informed. Russians are no exception, and the all too common anti-Russia rhetoric coming from the west over issues from gay rights to Syria and Pussy Riot has fostered a sense of national persecution. It also allows Putin to position himself as Russia's sole protector in the face of a vicious "information war" against Mother Russia. Little wonder that the ex-KGB officer's electoral ratings have just shot up to their highest level for nearly 10 years.
In reality, there is little the west can do to influence Russia, on gay rights or anything else. But to stand even a chance, criticism needs to be measured, accurate and, above all, consistent. There are enough reasons to disapprove of Putin's authoritarian regime without resorting to hyperbole and falsehoods.